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The ministers of agriculture, trade and finance reached a basic agreement Friday on the need to invoke temporary curbs on surging imports from China of stone leeks, fresh shiitake mushrooms and rushes used to weave tatami.

They stopped short, however, of making a decision to actually invoke the temporary import restrictions. Joined by Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, the three ministers will meet again as early as next week to make a final decision.

Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Takeo Hiranuma and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshio Yatsu discussed temporarily raising tariffs on the three farm products to protect domestic growers from the wave of Chinese imports.

Friday’s meeting, held at the request of the Agriculture Ministry, was the first of its kind involving three ministers jointly examining an issue.

The government is allowed to place import restrictions on farm products based on a general safeguard provision under the World Trade Organization if it can prove that the imports seriously harm domestic producers.

As an emergency measure, WTO rules also allow the raising of tariffs for up to 200 days to fill the price gap between imports and domestic products, but only when belated actions are expected to cause a devastating situation for domestic producers.

If taken, it would be the first time the country has invoked the safeguard measure to restrict imports.

Since January 1995, when the WTO rules became effective, 31 cases of safeguard measures have been taken, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

However, some government officials voiced concerns over the possible reaction of China, which is not a member of the WTO yet, to the emergency action.

Last year, China retaliated by banning the import of cellphones and polyester from South Korea, which had invoked import restriction measures to halt a surge of garlic imports from China.

The three ministries have been conducting a joint probe since December to gauge whether to impose curbs.

Last week, the Agriculture Ministry reported that imports of the three products had increased significantly in the past five years and that the revenue of domestic producers declined during the same period.

For instance, the import of stone leeks grew nearly 24 times from 1,504 tons in 1996 to 37,375 tons in 2000. During the same period, domestic producers’ profit per 10 hectares dropped from 291,000 yen in 1996 to 158,000 yen in 2000.

The imports of rush products grew 78 percent from 11.4 million mats in 1996 to 20.3 million mats in 2000. The import accounted for 59.4 percent of the domestic market in 2000, compared with 29.7 percent in 1996.

Concerning fresh shiitake, imports grew 72.4 percent from 24,394 tons in 1996 to 42,057 tons in 2000. Accordingly, shipments by domestic producers declined 10.6 percent from 75,157 tons in 1996 to 67,224 tons in 2000.

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